Now that my son is five, our holidays are dictated by the school holidays. The freedom we had between Ollie being born and starting school – to take off whenever we wanted, to find a cottage somewhere at a very reasonable price – has disappeared. And like a lover we took for granted, we are suddenly aware of what we are missing.
We knew the horror stories about summer holiday prices – not told around campfires but over coffee with friends or seen in Facebook posts by the disgruntled parents of children older than ours.
And the hike in prices from what we were used to was dizzying. After looking for an hour at what felt like hundreds of websites I was done in, little birds flying round my head like Tom the cat when Jerry hits him with a spade.
After making me a cup of tea and listening to my unsolicited and unreasonable rant, my partner Cat quietly suggested that I ask our friends with older children for suggestions.
“Yeah, well they all go camping.” I responded wearily. We didn’t have any camping gear and I remember camping as a kid on dreary, sodden Welsh hillsides. I didn’t want to be shouting at my family when, after two hours of struggling with a million tent poles and a heavy canvas covering in the rain, I finally had a barely waterproof sack flapping, lopsidedly about on a lumpy windswept farmers field somewhere in god knows where. I didn’t want to have to shit in a bucket and not wash for a week. And I tended to agree with my mate Ian in the pub that tents were for hippies.
I went off in a sulk and did some jobs around the house, deciding that if I was going to spend six weeks at home with a bored five-year old it could at least be tidy.
As I blundered about though, shifting various piles of mess around to no effect and muttering under my breath about the gall of people to want to maximise their profits, my mood gradually softened. I’m an intelligent bloke, I thought, my mates are intelligent blokes, there must be a way of doing it. My mate Steve hates discomfort more than me – his tent has a carpet! Surely if I put my mind to it I could figure it out. Maybe camping was better than is used to be.
So, after days of research and reading reviews and pricing things up I decided to pull the trigger, bite the bullet, drop the hammer. The Hathways were going camping.
So, for less than the price of any decent cottage in the south west for a week in summer I bought a shedload of shiny new camping gear.
I bought an inflatable tent with an electric pump that plugs into the car (to save my back), a fold away picnic table (I’m not eating on the ground like a dog), collapsible cookware and kettle, camping stove, sleeping bags, air beds, a “festival” toilet (we’re not animals) and various other gadgets and gizmos.
I was like a pig in shit pouring over all my new stuff and I learnt my first camping lesson: modern camping gear is brilliant. There’s so much stuff you can buy and it’s all engineered beautifully and it folds away smaller than you’d think. Camping gear is dad heaven. A legitimate reason to spend money on brushed aluminium stuff that makes you feel like Bear Grylls when you hold it.
I was hooked and we hadn’t even gone anywhere yet. Camping, I decided, was going to be amazing.
Even packing the car was a nicer experience than when I was a kid. For a start, the car in question wasn’t a beige Austin Maxi with a trailer hooked on the back that my dad had made from the back half of a mini.
I put the roof box on, Cat and Ollie ferried the gear out to me and I got all dadish about packing everything correctly and filing each available space. There was a brief recess while I explained to my five-year old what Tetris is but even so we were packed up in quick time.
We were set up on the campsite quickly too. The Vango Airbeam went up like a dream and it was then I learnt my second camping lesson: tent envy is a very real thing.
We had arrived at our pitch as our new neighbours were halfway through erecting their tent. I had ours up and filled with all my gadgetry before they had finished. I had hooked up to the electric (a luxury even my mate Steve thinks is too much), inflated the airbeds and plugged in the electric cool box, set out the fold away picnic table and emptied the car of luggage, folding chairs and the obligatory “activities bag”. As I zipped our temporary home shut and we set off to find the shop and play area I caught the eye of the dad on the next pitch. The smile I gave him was not reciprocated. I recognised the thinly veiled contempt on his face – it’s the look I reserve for people who have lie-ins and have never had to take a two-year-old to the out of hours doctor to have a pea removed from his nose.
I hadn’t meant to offend anyone, I was just trying to make life as easy as I could for my family but clearly this guy had made a judgement about me based on the kit I had, or more likely the kit he didn’t have. As we walked down through the campsite I was troubled by having so easily upset the guy. Perhaps there’s some kind of camping code I didn’t understand. Maybe I had broken an unwritten rule of the camping fraternity.
The play area was crawling with kids. Other people’s kids. Hundreds of them, swarming around all shouty and sticky. Around the edge stood guys of every age, shape and size. Well heeled grandpas in pastel jumpers and deck shoes stood inches from tattooed and topless blokes in football shorts. And every one of them wore the same expression of resignation. None of them wanted camping to be this way. In the head of every man camping is a primal, slugfest with nature, in which you show your kids what a brave and resourceful man you are. Camping should be trapping and skinning rabbits with your boy, while the wife looks lustfully at you being all heroic. But it isn’t. It’s all crowded swimming pools and cheap chain pubs that do a kid’s meal.
There and then I learnt my third camping lesson: the joy of camping for dads is buying the kit. It’s looking at websites for hours on end to find the perfect water carrier or enamel mug. It’s the fleeting joy of a well packed car and a perfectly pitched tent. It’s value for money and cooking with fire. Camping for dads is a chance to prove, at least to ourselves, that we are capable frontiersmen. So, I can forgive the dad on the next pitch who had to witness this newbie rock up with shiny new kit and dent his ego a bit. In a couple of years that’ll probably piss me off too.
We enjoyed camping so much we’re going again next week so I need to spend a few hours on Amazon looking at multi tools. I didn’t need one last time but my mate’s got a really cool one, so I want to get one that’s even better.